The Difference Between Montessori and Daycare

Weighing up child care options? Learn about the differences between Montessori schools and daycare centers, so that you can select the best arrangement for your family

Melissa McElhill

The experiences children have from birth to around six years old lay the foundations for their future behavior, health, abilities, and interests as adults. In essence, early childhood helps to determine the overall trajectory of human life. Making the decision to send your child to daycare requires serious consideration, not just because it might be the first time your child spends a significant amount of time away from home, but because of the profound effect that daycare can have on a child's growth and development.

As Montessori continues to gain global recognition as an effective educational model for young children, more families are considering it as an option for daycare. However, while Montessori schools and daycare centers both strive to meet the needs of young children, the methods they use to meet those needs — and the resulting outcomes — are worlds apart.

Let's start by establishing what daycare is

Daycare is a place where professionals help meet the needs of people who cannot be fully independent, such as children or the elderly. There are many forms of daycare for children, such as nannies or family child care homes, but the most popular options for parents and caregivers are the center-based arrangements, such as preschools, childcare centers or Head Start programs. These daycare centers occupy non-residential buildings large enough to accommodate at least one classroom, and in many cases comprise drop-off and pick-up facilities, and private outdoor spaces. They tend to provide half- or full-day services, which include meals, naps, activities, field trips, and before- and after-school care. 

In this sense, Montessori schools closely resemble daycare centers. A parent can drop her son off to Montessori school in the morning and pick him up in the early afternoon (or later in the day, depending on which program she has selected). The mother knows that while her child is at Montessori school, the staff are meeting his physical and emotional needs, as well as offering him plenty of engaging activities on an individual level or as part of a small group. Montessori schools are also held to the same government standards as daycare centers — so a Montessori school and daycare center in the same U.S. state will abide by the same minimum requirements concerning things like food safety and staff-to-child ratios.

Research in the field of education which has focused specifically on the contrasts between Montessori schools and traditional daycare centers suggests that parents and caregivers can expect to see major differences between the ways in which each one operates; and parents who send their child to Montessori school should anticipate a notable acceleration in their child's development. In the context of daycare, childhood development is broadly referred to as student outcome, regardless of whether or not the provider emphasizes education as part of their service. It means the educational, societal, and general life effects that result from the child's experience.

Student outcome: What happens when a child attends Montessori school versus a daycare center

Studies show that when children are first enrolled into some form of daycare (usually when they are between two and three years old), their test scores show little variation. Regardless of whether children enter a Montessori school, traditional daycare center, or play-based child care center, their developmental milestones start out at roughly the same level. Over time, however, children who attend Montessori schools overtake students who attend other versions of daycare in terms of academic achievement, social and emotional development, and overall happiness.

Academic achievement

While young children show no significant difference in intelligence levels at the beginning of preschool, children enrolled in Montessori schools advance at a higher rate in terms of reading, vocabulary, and numerical understanding. Two major external factors which affect children's academic development usually result in a large achievement gap between the most successful and least successful child in the class: family income and executive functioning skills (such as working memory and self-control). Astonishingly, not only do children who attend Montessori schools set the bar higher in terms of academic achievement, the achievement gap also decreases — so children from less affluent families and who lack executive functioning skills essentially "catch up" with the rest of the class.

Social and emotional development

According to Professor of Psychology Angeline Lillard, children who attend Montessori schools have better playground interactions than children in traditional settings. Also, studies that have included tests which predict social competence later in life also show that children who attend Montessori schools generally give more intricate answers to social problems. One example offered by Lillard's study (published in 2017) was a brainteaser where preschool-aged children were asked how they'd negotiate with another child in order to access to a precious resource, such as a swing set. Well-considered responses included, I'd ask her to take turns — she could use it for 10 minutes, then I'd use it for 10 minutes, which formed a high contrast with less sophisticated answers like, I'd tell the teacher

Overall happiness

Researchers have shown concern that high academic achievement in Montessori schools may come at the sacrifice of children enjoying school. However, children who attend Montessori schools generally derive more enjoyment from scholarly tasks than children who attend traditional schools.

Preparation for life beyond school

With famous Montessori graduates like Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Google creators Larry Page and Sergey Brin, researchers have speculated that Montessori schools help set children up for success by aiding their development of lifelong skills, such as mastery orientation and a friendly relationship with error. This greatly differs with traditional daycare, which emphasizes rote memorization and reward/punishment systems.

During a study in which children from Montessori schools and traditional schools solved mathematical problems while undergoing MRI scans, Montessori students showed stronger neural connectivity in brain regions responsible for error recognition. This means they were able to spot and correct their errors more efficiently than children who attended traditional school. 

Children who attend Montessori schools are also more likely to take on challenging tasks when given the choice, as they start to become cognizant of the relationship between taking on difficult tasks and growing as a human being. This is called mastery orientation or a growth mindset, which is something even adults strive for: the desire for self-improvement.

The field of Montessori early years education is in need of more research, especially involving large scale studies over long periods of time. Part of the challenge lies in comparing systems of education that have different priorities. Montessori education takes a holistic approach: social, emotional, and physical development alongside academic success. Daycare centers, on the other hand, may prioritize a certain area of development, such as academic advancement, while disregarding other areas entirely. Nevertheless, what studies have shown so far is that no matter what emphasis a daycare option has — whether it be academics, physical development, or open-ended play — children enrolled in Montessori schools outcompete in every area.

Why is that the case? The truth is, researchers are not yet sure. There are two major underexplored areas of research when it comes to comparing Montessori schools with daycare: parent engagement and teacher influence. Arguably, with Montessori being just over 100 years old and therefore still in its relative infancy, parents who are drawn to Montessori may be less risk averse than those who stick to the more established traditional path. Additionally, even without Montessori training, teachers who work in Montessori schools may find that the environment suits them better because they are naturally more sensitive and responsive.

The combination of warmth, trust and high expectations from teachers and parents might be the silver bullet which helps children in Montessori schools succeed, rather than the teaching methodology itself. However, research has also demonstrated that children in higher-fidelity Montessori classrooms (where children only have access to Montessori materials and activities) make larger social and cognitive school-year gains than those in lower fidelity ones. This heavily suggests that the operational style of Montessori schools make a key difference to student outcome; and the more authentic the approach, the better.

Operational style: How Montessori schools and daycares function day-to-day

When you walk into a Montessori classroom for the first time, you will be struck by the feeling of calm it exudes. Quiet, minimal, and uncluttered, each classroom is designed to appeal to the young child's sense of order, desire to work and appreciation for beauty. The lack of noise will seem conspicuous at first, but you will start to notice the low hum of industry as children move freely around the room — some engaging in conversation, some working alone; some sitting at desks, others on the floor. You may wonder where the teacher is, and why all the desks aren't facing the blackboard. Indeed, Montessori schools are run in a completely different way to conventional daycare centers.

Learning materials and classroom design that encourage active exploration

In a Montessori classroom, the child finds himself surrounded by learning materials which have been scientifically designed to appeal to his social and cognitive developmental needs. He is free to try different activities during the morning and afternoon work cycles, which are designated periods of time where the child will not be disturbed by the teacher, other children or group activities. This helps the child develop concentration, willpower and independence. Daycare environments, on the other hand, are designed to entertain, and tend to contain bright colors, poster-covered walls, noisy battery-powered toys, and furniture that children can't use by themselves, such as coat pegs that are too high to reach.

Mixed age groups

Age segregation in schools has become the social norm, and traditional daycare tends to follow that model by keeping all the two-year-olds together, all the three-year-olds, and so on. Montessori schools, on the other hand, contain mixed-age environments, such as the Children's House, which caters to children who are 2.5 to 6 years old. This helps develop a spirit of community and collaboration within the classroom, as children and educators alike realize that there are differences in each child's interests, ability and level of development. Children enter the Children' House at 2.5 years old and feel inspired by the work of their older peers. As they grow and start to master the challenges and activities the classroom has in store, they develop into the six-year old leaders they once looked up to, embracing opportunities to lead and teach their younger classmates. 


Children can freely choose what to work on and where to work, so long as they use the learning materials for their designated purpose. With the freedom to move and choose, children develop internal discipline and social awareness. Most Montessori learning materials are intentionally scarce (one set for each classroom), and so children start to realize that when they are working on a particular set of materials, they have prevented another a child from working on them. This helps give them motivation to treat communal objects with care and to put them back when they are finished, so that someone else can use them afterwards. In most daycare settings, children do not choose what they engage with throughout the day, but are given set activities at set times, like circle time in the morning and painting after lunch, with no consideration for each individual child's preference.

A teacher whose job is to guide, not lead

Rather than impose her own will upon the children, the teacher chooses her moments of instruction wisely, offering lessons and presentations at suitable junctures in each child's development, in order to maximize the amount of independent learning the child can achieve. (That's why we call our teachers "guides".) The guide's goal is to actively nurture and support her students in what is fundamentally a child-directed process of development. 

Independent learning by the child

While the guide gives lessons and presentations, adult-led activities do not form the majority of the class time, as the guide's aim is to connect the child with his environment, showing him how to use the learning materials, and in some cases, showing him how to evaluate his work so that he does not need anyone to correct his errors. This allows for large chunks of peaceful, uninterrupted time where each child can engage in activities that interest them. In most daycare settings, a child who is engrossed in an activity will actually have their concentration broken in order to join a group activity, like circle time, and is expected to get all their learning from the teacher's lessons.

Individual lesson plans

Though the child will not be aware of this, his guide will have an individually tailored lesson plan for each day that he attends Montessori school. There are set areas of the curriculum the guide will deem fit for covering, which she will then weigh up with the child's level of development and sensitivities so that she can make the lesson as appealing as possible - aiming to encourage independent learning by the child once the lesson is finished. This differs to most daycare arrangements, which follow a set curriculum of lessons to be given to individuals or groups at set times, regardless of children's interests.

A babysitting service or a force for development?

What truly sets Montessori apart from other daycare options is its foundation in observation and scientific experimentation. Every set of learning materials that you find in a Montessori school — indeed, everything that happens inside a Montessori school — is the result of years of trial and error, as the founder of the teaching method discovered which activities and learning materials best supported the young children in her care. That is why Montessori is referred to as "scientific pedagogy." It's the only childcare option on the market that is based on scientific facts and general principles regarding how children grow. 

Educator Emily Schubitz called Montessori a "developmental force rather than just a babysitting source," arguing that most daycares have been designed to contain and entertain children, whereas Montessori environments actively seek to aid childhood development. Schubitz further argues that the secret to Montessori lies in the way that children are respected as individuals. It's a holistic approach that cares for the whole child, not just their creative side or just their academic side — and this comprehensive approach is not paralleled by any other daycare arrangement on the market, be it traditional, progressive or academic-focused.

While many daycare centers now follow creative, research-based programs, studies show that children who attend Montessori school excel in every area of growth: whether through stronger academic test scores or higher levels of happiness. This is not to suggest that all children who attend Montessori schools turn out to be successful, happy adults, while all children who attend traditional daycare centers never live out their dreams. It simply points to the fact that Montessori schools aid childhood development more effectively than other daycare options.

Meet the Author

Melissa McElhill

Melissa is an AMI-certified educator who has taught children aged 10 weeks to 18 years old in the UK, US and China. She is also a qualified positive discipline parent coach, helping families integrate Montessori principles into their lives.

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